‹ Past Exhibitions

Art of the Written Word: Calligraphy in Asia

Many Asian cultures, from the Islamic world to China and Japan, regard calligraphy as the highest form of art. This exhibition, drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection, features diverse calligraphic traditions in religious and secular contexts, ranging from ancient times to the present.

Employing the finest calligraphy and using lavish materials like fine paper and gold for religious writings such as the Qur’an or Buddhist sutras promoted their importance as sacred texts and encouraged veneration. In some religions, causing such texts to be copied and disseminated was considered an important act that would gain spiritual merit for the patron. In secular contexts, fine calligraphy was employed for the production of illustrated books of history, literature, and poetry. And sometimes calligraphy or calligraphy-like motifs were appreciated purely for aesthetic or design purposes.

The written word itself could possess transformational power, especially in divination and ritual. Script could serve as talismanic symbol, useful for protection from illness or dangerous forces, as well as for the fulfillment of the desires for longevity, prosperity, and happiness.

Literacy and the ability to write beautifully formed the basis for education in many Asian cultures, and a good education provided the path for improving one’s status within society. In East Asian cultures, especially, the practice of calligraphy was considered an important aspect of refining the whole person, since one’s mind and character would be revealed in the appearance of one’s handwriting. Basic calligraphic strokes also served as the foundation for painting with brush and ink.

Calligraphy continues to be seen as an important cultural marker today, and many contemporary Asian artists call attention to or question the authority of the written word, whether for religious or political purposes, in their work.

Ellen Avril
Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art